Rival child lamas grow up and into political storm
By Lindsay Beck
SHIGATSE, China (Reuters) – In the cobbled paths and
ancient courtyards of Tibet’s Tashilhunpo monastery, a little
boy stares out of pictures wearing a yellow, cone-shaped hat
that mark his sect of Buddhism.
Gyaltsen Norbu has been groomed since childhood to prepare
for his role as the 11th Panchen Lama, the reincarnation of the
10th and the second-most important figure in Tibetan Buddhism.
But while he received politically vetted religious training
under the close watch of China’s leaders, another boy is
believed to have grown up under house arrest, dubbed the
world’s youngest political prisoner.
The first boy was chosen by the Chinese government. The
second, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, was anointed by the Dalai Lama,
Tibet’s spiritual leader and Beijing’s nemesis since he fled to
India in 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese rule.
Ten years on, with the official Panchen Lama now a
teen-ager and expected to take on a larger role, the Chinese
government is being forced to come face-to-face with the
question of acceptance for its choice in the towns and villages
of Tibet, where many maintain a secret loyalty to the Dalai
“The 11th Panchen Lama is not a stooge,” declared Bian Ba
Ci Ren, an official in Shigatse, Tibet’s second city tucked in
the mountains 2-1/2 miles above sea level.
“He is a genius, both in religious meaning and in his
studies,” he said.
But with the “Soul Boy” spending most of his childhood in
Beijing, his acceptance has yet to be tested where it counts —
in the holy confines of the Panchen Lama’s traditional seat,
Shigatse’s Tashilhunpo monastery.
PORTRAITS AND PRAYER SCARVES
Within the walls of Tashilhunpo, where security cameras
keep watch and there are rumored to be spies among the monks,
Gyaltsen Norbu’s picture is displayed at every shrine,
alongside photos of his predecessors.
All are of equal size, all carefully draped with white
prayer scarves in a sign of respect.
But outside in the bustling streets of Shigatse, there are
signs the 11th Panchen Lama is little more than tolerated while
his Dalai Lama-chosen rival is revered.
“In the countryside, everyone believes the Dalai Lama’s
choice is the right one. In the cities some think the
government’s choice is right,” said an 18-year-old student.
Asked which boy he believes in, his answer is immediate.
“Of course it’s the Dalai Lama’s choice,” he said before
hustling off, helping his mother by the elbow through the
pilgrimage circuit that winds into the mountains behind the
In the narrow streets where tourists jostle with Buddhist
pilgrims, shop after shop bears the smiling photo of the 10th
Panchen Lama, a hero among Tibetans for criticizing Beijing in
a 1962 petition against efforts to wipe out Buddhism in Tibet.
While he spent more than a decade in prison and under house
arrest for his efforts, the 10th Panchen Lama was later
rehabilitated, making him a politically acceptable figure to
both Tibetans and the Chinese government.
But pictures of both boys picked as his reincarnation are
conspicuously absent, a sign of passive resistance against the
“You don’t see his photo being displayed in a way that is
used for figures that are held reverentially,” said one Western
A SEAT OF HIS OWN
That’s a problem for a government keen to prove Gyaltsen
Norbu’s acceptance among the monks of Tashilhunpo before he
turns 18 and is expected to take on a full leadership role
within Tibetan Buddhism.
Officially, the monks at Tashilhunpo not only accept
Gyaltsen Norbu but also repudiate the other boy, now 16.
“The 11th Panchen Lama recognized by the Dalai Lama doesn’t
exist,” said Pingla, a monk and director of the Democratic
Management Committee at Tashilhunpo, the government group
inside every monastery that keeps religious life in check.
“We do not accept him so we don’t display his photos at
home or in the monastery.”
But loyalties at Tashilhunpo once lay elsewhere.
Its chief abbot, Chadrel Rinpoche, was sacked and jailed
for treason after notifying the Dalai Lama that his search team
had identified Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as its choice.
That leaves an open question of just what kind of reception
Gyaltsen Norbu would receive should the government impose his
presence within the monastery.
“The refusal of monks there to accept him is really a big
problem for the Chinese. Symbolically, he should be in the
monastery,” said Tsering Shakya, a Tibet scholar at Oxford
“He is wandering around all over China and he really has no
seat of his own,” he said.
But with the battle over the Panchen Lama a fight for the
hearts and minds of Tibetans, the Chinese leadership is making
clear that its choice must win out, giving Gyaltsen Norbu an
ever-higher profile as he gets older.
Earlier this year, religious leaders were ordered to urge
the faithful to show more support for the boy, and he met
President Hu Jintao on his birthday in February, underscoring
his importance to the leadership.
“The 11th Panchen Lama has the respect of the people in
Shigatse and the monks or our monastery,” Pingla said.
“He will come back to live here.”